When film critic David Thompson wrote his list of worst films of 2012, he added a note which read, “The worst have to come from those that thought they could be the best.” Although I don’t agree with his list (which includes Looper), I couldn’t help but be struck by that idea. It makes so much sense, and seems so obvious, but clearly not as far as the Golden Raspberries are concerned. Looking at the nominees for this year’s Worst Director Razzie award, you see five people who made five bad movies, but they’re five people who made bad movies that never really had a chance of being the best. Instead, it should have the names of people who could have made something brilliant and failed spectacularly.The name that truly deserves to be on that list (and then take home the prize) is Academy Award winner Tom Hooper.
I will admit that I liked this new adaptation of Les Misérables somewhat, which sets me outside of the opinion of most of my theatrically inclined friends, but I liked it in spite of itself and in spite of its director. Almost every single choice Tom Hooper made was a terrible one, and on multiple occasions, he nearly ruined the impact of the scenes that the actors had managed to pull out. The fact that it works at all is kind of shocking.
But enough vague accusations. Let’s examine just how terrible Tom Hooper really is.
A few notes before we get into this: we are going into extremely heavy spoiler territory. The stage musical is more than 25 years old, and the book it’s based on is six times that. The statute of limitations on that ran out around the same time as movies came into existence. I also expect that some of these issues will sound nitpicky, especially when I get into the minor changes to lines that at best are unnecessary and at worst ruin their impact. I am completely okay with that. My general feelings about the futility of comparing a film to its source material don’t apply here, because the film and the stage show aren’t dramatically different enough in content (and for the most part my problems aren’t with content cuts).
I am also running with the auteur theory. Say what you want about the idea of directorial ownership, but when Tom Hooper won an Oscar for The King’s Speech (a good film in its own right, though hardly deserving of the kind of acclaim it received), it pinned the film’s successes and failures on him. For Les Misérables, I will be doing the same. No, not everything is actually the director’s fault, but he allowed it all to happen, so he is still culpable. He could have said, “Why the hell are you doing that stupid thing?” and stopped it. He didn’t. So I blame him for everything.
Oh, where to start… How about here, since I have footage of this particular grievance? And no, I’m not going to complain about Russell Crowe’s performance. His singing voice isn’t nearly strong enough to pull off the character, but in context with the film itself (and with the generally middling performances of most of the ensemble), it was pretty much acceptable. I’m going to complain about a line change. A line change that has major implications for the entire premise of the film. Watch that clip. What is Jean Valjean’s crime? Stealing a loaf of bread. He got five years in prison for that, and he’s been marked as a “dangerous man” for the rest of his life. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Hearing those lyrics, you might think he just picked it up off a bread cart and got really unlucky or something. That’s not quite right. The original lyrics:
Valjean: Yes, it means I’m free.
Javert: No. It means you get your yellow ticket of leave. You are a thief.
Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread
Javert: You robbed a house.
Valjean: I broke a window pane. My sister’s child…
Now that’s interesting, don’t you think? Adding a little breaking and entering plus property damage to the charge makes the five year sentence seem a bit fairer, even if it still comes across as a bit of overkill. Instead of following the perfectly fine exchange in the musical, someone decided that Russell Crowe should sing some more (why?!) in order to explain a piece of paper that becomes irrelevant ten minutes later. It boggles my mind that this decision was made and then passed throughout the cast and crew and nobody said, “So… are we going to mention that Valjean actually robbed someone’s home as opposed to, say, stealing from a cart?”
Now let’s talk about the thing that really kills the movie, and it is on display in full force in the above clip: the camerawork. I’m not even sure where to begin, because I hate literally everything about it. It isn’t just the fact that every single song has the exact same feel, which could be used for stylistic effect if it was relegated only to, say, Javert and Valjean’s songs (it could mirror the musical similarities between “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide,” further reinforcing their connection, to some kind of effect). Nope. If you watch the above clip of Samantha Barks singing “On My Own,” you will surely notice the disorienting movement, the lack of cuts, and the generally strange nature of the camera. It’s pretty much always like that during solo songs (of which there are a number).
It’s not just weird for the audience; it seems to be awkward for the actors too. In “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” it looks like the camera is about to bump into him on multiple occasions as it tries to circle around him (followed by really jarring cuts). More problematic is that none of the characters break the fourth wall by looking into the camera. I don’t know that I would have appreciated them doing that, but considering the camera is frequently right in front of their faces, it means the actors’ eyes are constantly looking anywhere but straight ahead. In the case of “On My Own,” the camera is moving back and forth so much this is made even worse. If they are supposed to be looking up at God or something, it is fine, but in other cases, it seems less like a artistic decision than an uncomfortable requirement.
It also doesn’t really allow the actors to act beyond their faces. After twenty seconds of seeing Anne Hathaway’s face sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” I was completely satisfied by her performance. I wanted to see her entire body, though. I wanted to see the complete image of this broken woman. After a minute of seeing Anne Hathaway’s face sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” I was actively unhappy with the scene. Much has been made of her performance (the Golden Globes certainly liked it), but I couldn’t get into it. The terrible camerawork stopped me from being able to take in what she did. I would assume that the entire point of the single take, close up, is to really get a feeling for what the actor can do without the magic of cinematic editing interfering. It doesn’t. It gives a sense of what the actor’s face can do, but there’s no sense of general affect. What is Anne Hathaway doing with her hands? What about her legs? What about all of her body below the shoulders? I had no idea, but I wanted to know. Tom Hooper wouldn’t let me.
Also problematic, though less so, was the fact that the camera operators couldn’t keep the actor’s faces in focus. During at least one song, an actor’s face suddenly sprang into focus about halfway through. I hadn’t realized it was slightly soft until it was fixed, but it was glaringly obvious after the fact. Shallow depth of field is great and all (when the ears are out of focus, you know that they’re trying way too hard to get that effect), but it also needs to be done properly. Because the camera is so close to the subjects, fine-tuning focus is much more difficult. This film is proof of that, and proof that maybe the team behind the actual filming isn’t as competent as it initially seems
Now let’s just talk about Eponine in general. Of the younger generation in Les Misérables, she is the most tragic. Cosette and Marius have their Romeo and Juliet romance, which Eponine, who has been in love with Marius for quite some time, helps to ignite. It’s really a sad thing, but Eponine is basically never given the credit she is due as a character. In most productions of Les Misérables (Broadway Cast, London Recording, etc.), Eponine is played by obnoxious people with obnoxious voices. “On My Own,” which is easily one of the best songs in the show, is usually grating. It’s not here, at least not aurally, and is one of the very few songs I would actually listen to outside of the film.
Samantha Barks was a welcome exception, but the changes to her character negate some of what makes her (and also her relationship with Marius) interesting. I would also like to note that the whole “Marius’s family is really rich” thing is awful. There is the implication of money in the musical (Enjolras sings, “Is this simply a game for rich young boys to play?” in “Red and Black”), but it’s never explicit. The fact that Marius openly defies his upper-class uncle and then gives in later without even considering the fact that he just completely betrayed what his group had been fighting for (in the context of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” it’s even weirder). As a concept, it isn’t nearly developed enough. Perhaps it was to justify the lavishness of the wedding scene, but all it really does is make Marius seem like an opportunist of the worst kind.
But let’s talk about Eponine and Marius at the barricade. The musical has two meetings between them, one where Marius recognizes Eponine after she’s wrapped her chest and put on a hat. He tells her to leave and gives her the letter to see Cosette. Not giving her the letter then is fine, but cutting that meeting implies that Marius doesn’t really care that Eponine is at the barricade. She is there basically the entire time, and there’s no way he wouldn’t recognize her. Then there’s the second meeting, where she dies. In the film, she literally grabs a gun barrel pointed at him and points it to her own body (as opposed to basically anywhere else, where it could have just not killed either of them). In the musical, she arrives at the barricade already mortally wounded (something Marius and the audience don’t initially realize). This happens before any of the attacks, which makes the whole “She is the first to fall” line that Enjolras sings in “Night of Anguish” after her death far more poignant. She isn’t actually the first one to die. In fact, Enjolras drew first blood during the parade, so he has no right to say anything about that.
On a somewhat related note: Samantha Barks was as the only primary character actress who has actually been in a (pseudo-)production of Les Misérables, since she played Eponine in the 25th Anniversary Concert version. It is somewhat bizarre that no one else was plucked from that or other productions as well. Many of them feature much better performers like Nick Jonas (yeah, from the Jonas Brothers), who did an excellent job as Marius in the Concert version. Nick Jonas, for his part, also has the name recognition that typifies most of the cast. Going with Eddie Redmayne, whose vibrato-inducing mouth-spasms were made so much worse by the terrible camerawork, was a strange choice. It was also a bad one.
Now I want to point out three particular line changes. None of them are as heinous as anything above, but they give a sense of some of the smaller, entirely unnecessary changes that can be found all throughout the film. All of them make the material weirder, more confusing, or less interesting, and it makes me sad that they happened.
1) “I have saved your soul for God.” Spoken to Valjean by the priest after freeing him from the constables early in the film. Original line: “I have bought your soul for God.” That entire scene is about the significance of the silver Valjean stole/was given and how it can give him a new life. Those candlesticks are a recurring image, and they clearly had a big impact on him. “Bought” is a very significant word, and it puts a lot of weight onto (slave comparisons could be made, perhaps, given that Valjean refers to himself as a “slave of the law” in the prologue). It carries a lot of weight. “Saved,” on the other hand, is basically meaningless.
2) “I am the mayor of this town. I run a business of repute.” This one is just weird. The original musical has these lines in the opposite order. For no clear reason, the film breaks the rhyme scheme of the song. Previous line: “This is a factory, not a circus. Now come on ladies, settle down.” Why?
3) “Every day, I wonder every day, who was it brought me here from the barricade.” This one is actually an omission from the reprise of “A Heart Full of Love,” and a pretty significant one at that. There are two reasons why: A) the scene plays out as though he says the line. The previous line is by Cosette: “Everyday you walk with stronger step, you walk with longer step. The worst is over.” The following line, also by Cosette: “Don’t think about it Marius, with all the years ahead of us…” In the film, Cosette’s reaction on her second line is too harsh. She very sternly says “Don’t think about it, Marius” despite Marius giving absolutely zero indication that he was thinking of anything. B) It gives his later line during “The Wedding Song” (“Then it’s true. Then I’m right. Jean Valjean was my savior that night.”) some context. Without the line, there is never an indication that it is something he thinks about. It’s a glaring omission, and it was so very unnecessary.
And speaking of unnecessary, who the hell thought it would be a good idea to actually show Javert’s suicide? Seriously. Not only did the “splat” sound verge on cartoonish, ripping any emotional significance from that incredibly emotional moment, but it was so many levels of unnecessary I can’t even comprehend what was going through anybody’s head at the time. That shot of him on (and then off) the bridge is a great one, one of the few moments where the camera really pulled something nice off. And then the film completely undoes everything. I was actually shocked by the moment, not because it was shocking to see something like that, but because it was so stupid. My thirteen year old sister (who normally hates people talking in the theater), said out loud what everyone was thinking: “Well that was unnecessary.” Multiple people I’ve talked to have pointed to that as the single most ridiculous moment in the film, and I am inclined to agree. Seriously, what was up with that?
I have plenty more issues with the film—I could go on and on about how ridiculous the dock scene was, complain about the fact that Valjean didn’t have a brand on his chest, or opine that “Suddenly” was a complete waste of potential—but you probably get the point by now. At every turn, there is some ridiculous meddling with a brilliant thing that slowly chips away at it, making it less and less brilliant until it is barely more than a husk of its former self. That is what Tom Hooper’s bastardization of Les Misérables is: a husk of the original musical’s greatness. Go see it, but temper your expectations, and temper them hard. If you do that enough, you might even be pleasantly surprised. It is still completely watchable, and it might even tug at your heartstrings once or twice, but not because of anything the director did. His decisions, made actively or not, shaped a film that is less than a shadow of what it could have been.
So please, give the man a Razzie. More than anyone in recent memory, Tom Hooper truly deserves it.